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Germany’s Blind Breast Cancer Detectors

Braille readers are able to detect tumors much earlier than most doctors and women performing self-exams.

Science shows that many good ideas occur while in the shower. One morning, Frank Hoffman, a German doctor, was struck by the thought: would blind women do his job better than him?

It’s fairly well known that blind people trained to read Braille have a highly developed sense of touch, even more so than their counterparts who do not read Braille. Hoffmann hypothesized that blind and visually-impaired women might be the best candidates to carry out breast examinations on patients, which depends on searching for small irregularities in breast tissue.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Evidence now backs Hoffmann’s hunch. In a currently unpublished study by Essen University, blind women reportedly detected nearly a third more lumps than regular gynecologists.

Hoffmann told the BBC that blind women can often detect lumps three to four times smaller than what a doctor or a woman giving herself a home exam could feel. “That makes a real difference,” Hoffmann said. “That's the time it takes a tumor to spread its cells into the body."

Additionally, Hoffman told the BBC that in his practice he can only spend three minutes on a clinical breast exam, which is an insufficient amount of time to detect small lumps indicative of early breast cancer.

So Hoffmann founded Discovering Hands in order to aid in early detection. His organization utilizes a program to train blind women to become Medical Tactile Examiners and 17 now work in different practices throughout Germany.

One practitioner, Filiz Demir, conducts examinations, which can last up to 45 minutes, by using strips of tape marked with coordinates in Braille to make a grid of the breast. She then slowly feels her away along the grid and if she finds a lump, she notes exactly where it is on the grid.

Prior to her work as a MTE, Demir worked in a travel agency but when she turned 35, her slight began to slowly deteriorate, making it difficult to do her job. She quit the agency but retrained and learned Braille, however, she was rarely, if ever, invited back for a job interview.

"Blindness was always my disability back then,” Demir told the BBC. "I could never work as fast as the others. I was always behind. Now my disability has become my strength. I'm not reliant on anyone and I can help others. It's a great feeling."

However, some professors and researchers believe that detecting small lumps can be a stressful experience for women, because most lumps are usually benign and create false alarms.

"I know many women who have been frightened by false alarms. Some have a biopsy done, which showed nothing, but they live their lives from one mammogram to the next,” Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, told the BBC.

On the other hand, one of Hoffman’s patients, Heike Gothe, believes that the blind MTE saved her life.

"I had felt a lump on my right breast and went to see the doctor," Gothe told the BBC. "They confirmed what I'd found and then detected a very small lump on the left, just 2mm in size. It didn't even show up on the ultrasound or mammogram, it was just the blind MTE who felt it."

As blind MTEs become more common in Germany, Hoffmann is looking globally to extend the practice. He is currently in talks with Israel and Colombia.

"I'm convinced," he told the BBC, "that especially in countries that aren't technically so advanced as Germany—this model could improve the quality of medical standards very dramatically."